Back in April last year Anna wrote a blog post about our involvement with running community workshops for Your Square Mile. Now that the dust has settled we’re now able to take a step back and look objectively over the project and what we’ve learnt from it.
To recap, sixteen workshops took place across the UK between February and June of last year in areas that were handpicked by YSM as areas with mainly low social capital; areas that were identified as needing more support in order to look after themselves. We spent three hours in the company of local residents and, at the end, asked them to nominate projects that would benefit the local community. YSM will stay in touch with them over time to see how they are getting on, and have now launched their ‘mutual’ which will be run by, and for, residents across the UK allowing them to share ideas/stories/best practice etc.
So is this the Big Society then? We were very careful not to use those words but, yes – at least in theory. Participants had no shortage of ideas about how their areas could be bettered, and it was our job to help distil them into workable ideas, from trout farms to ‘Greet a Granny’, and to get them to think about how they would get started.
Some common themes emerged across the groups; one key idea was the need for a place where the community can come together, as the wordle created from the list of projects shows.
Many participants felt that the community facilities that they currently had were either not fit for purpose, or were not able to attract members of the community that might benefit from them. Another recurring theme was a gulf between younger and older residents, which some felt was exacerbated by technology. Many called for the community centres to actively encourage intergenerational contact and allow the young and old to learn from, and about, one another, as well as more general skills exchanges that might help the unemployed etc.
Some participants even surprised themselves with a newfound sense of civic responsibility – though not everyone reached the same level of enthusiasm about voluntarism, we genuinely saw a deep seated desire for self-improvement and a realisation that, the fate of a community is, to a certain extent, in its own hands. A recent poll we conducted with the RSA to coincide with the party conferences shows that around half (52%) of the public agree that “when it comes to the quality of local services it is time we stopped blaming the politicians and started making the effort to sort things out for ourselves”.
We also learnt that we, as moderators, can sometimes be more hands off as long as the event is carefully planned! We were slightly nervous about the unorthodox method of leaving tables of residents to talk amongst themselves (aka self-moderation) but it worked brilliantly – the groups were never short of ideas and things to talk about – they didn’t need us to chivvy them along. The key was giving the event structure so that they could systematically think through the issues and solutions.
Also, we only offered only a very small financial incentive–much lower that what we would normally offer. As anticipated this did lead to a drop in attendance rates, and many last minute drop-outs so this supports our ongoing recommendation that it is important to provide appropriate incentives for qualitative research. However, it meant that our workshops were populated by the most engaged residents, as those who come to workshops solely for the money and/or a free sandwich were conspicuously absent: in this case, exactly the people we were interested in.
In effect, the genuine desire to improve their local area was the incentive both to attend and to maintain interest in the discussion. Had we realised beforehand, we might have been a little less apprehensive!
You can see a video from one of the pilot workshops here - http://gorleston.yoursquaremile.co.uk/